Inland Northwest ski areas ride season of ups, downs
Resorts give mostly positive assessments of seasonApril 26th, 2012
Five Inland Northwest ski resorts report mixed, but generally positive assessments for the ski season, which ended for most early this month.
Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park, northeast of Spokane, and 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, near Chewelah, say early and late-season attendance was strong, but that was offset by a midseason decline in skier visits during a snow drought.
Silver Mountain Resort, near Kellogg, Idaho, reports skier visits were down from last year's strong attendance, but still one of the better recent years.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort, near Sandpoint, Idaho, says attendance was up from last year, and Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area, on the Idaho-Montana border, reports a record season for skier visits.
"It was a different season that went up and down like a roller coaster," says Brad McQuarrie, general manager at Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park.
Mt. Spokane, like other area resorts, opened before Thanksgiving. "Opening earlier is always a bonus," McQuarrie says.
Skier visits fell, though, in December, he says, with a lack of precipitation.
The resort was able to stay open by using groomers to move snow around.
"We were doing a lot of snow farming," McQuarrie says. "The big deal to me was how well we could utilize three feet of snow for a month and a half."
January brought much-needed snowfall. With that, skier numbers improved, and by the end of the season, the resort posted 75,000 skier visits and revenues of $2.7 million.
"I was gritting my teeth all through December, but after that, it turned out OK," he says.
Moving forward, McQuarrie says the state legislature allocated $250,000 for lodge improvements.
"It's a lot of money for us," he says. "We could do a lot with that."
Improvements will include constructing a river-rock fireplace and creating seating for an additional 98 people, to bring the total capacity to 370 people.
As for Mt. Spokane's long-range expansion plans, Mt. Spokane 2000, the nonprofit group that manages the resort, had planned to release this week a supplemental environmental impact statement for public comment about a plan to expand the ski area by 279 acres.
The plan, which has been opposed by a coalition of environmental groups, would include installing a chairlift and creating seven new ski trails at a projected cost of $500,000, in addition to more than $320,000 that Mt. Spokane has spent on planning and environmental surveys.
49 Degrees North
John Eminger, owner of 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, says that resort had 80,000 skier visits for the season, which is about an average year.
"In this business, average is just fine," Eminger says.
The resort had enough snow to open before Thanksgiving, but it didn't snow in December and early January. Skier visits slowed significantly, he says.
The season turned back around when it started snowing again, and skier visits in February, March, and early April were above expectations, Eminger says.
The resort has planned more than $2 million in improvements, which will include installing a new chairlift this summer and constructing a midmountain lodge in the summer of 2013, he says.
The 4,336-foot long chairlift will rise 1,144 vertical feet, and provide skier access to Angel Peak, which is northwest of the resort's Chewelah Peak Summit.
"It's unique for us in the Pacific Northwest to open a whole new summit," Eminger says.
The lift will be constructed in time for the 2012-2013 ski season.
The planned three-story, 4,800-square-foot lodge will be located at a trail junction overlooking the Pend Oreille Valley and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians' buffalo and powwow grounds.
The lodge, which was designed by Chewelah architect Tom Bristol, will have a heated deck, a meeting area in the daylight basement, food and beverage services, a dining area with in-floor heating, and a ski-patrol dispatch location.
Eminger is optimistic about the future of the ski area and the industry in the Inland Northwest.
"I see a very strong recreational community in Spokane," he says. "People tend to move here for the outdoors. The population and (skier and snowboarder) demographic is expanding."
With a Nov. 29 opening, Schweitzer Mountain Resort enjoyed the earliest start of its ski season in more than 25 years, says Sean Briggs, Schweitzer's marketing director.
Briggs declines to disclose the total number of skier visits, but says it was up from the year-earlier season, which also was above average.
"I attribute that to other resorts around the nation struggling for snow," he says. "A lot of skiers who would have gone to Colorado or Tahoe ended up coming here."
Schweitzer opened with a solid base, and unlike at other resorts, it continued to snow there through December, Briggs says.
"We had two weeks of hit-and-miss snow in early January, but by the end of January, it started dumping again," he says.
Briggs says the resort will operate a new zip line this summer. The side-by-side cable ride will begin near the village, travel more than 700 feet toward Lake Pend Oreille, and end near the Musical Chairs beginners' chairlift.
Other activities for the summer season, which starts June 29, include summit lift rides, mountain biking, disc golf, hiking, and the Cranky Jennings Sluice Box children's attraction.
Silver Mountain Resort, in Kellogg, Idaho, tallied its third best year in seven seasons, says John Williams, the resort's marketing director.
Williams declines to disclose skier-visit numbers, but says this year's total was about 8 percent behind last year's total visits as of April 20, with at least two more Saturdays to go.
"Last year, skier visits were really good," he says, adding that total skier visits during the 2010-2011 season were 25 percent higher than the year-earlier season.
This summer will mark the third season of operations at the resort's Galena Ridge Golf Course, where nine holes are developed.
"We're hoping to get started on the other nine as soon as we have more confidence in the real estate market," Williams says.
Summer business, which includes the indoor water park, gondola rides, mountain biking, and other recreational and entertainment activities, has been building steadily, now making up about 10 percent of Silver Mountain's annual revenues, Williams says.
Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area had a record season with 64,291 skier visits, up nearly 8 percent compared with the 2010-2011 season, Phil Edholm, Lookout Pass president and CEO says in an email response to a Journal inquiry.
The ski area plans to replace its rope tow with a small chairlift this summer, subject to authorization from the U.S. Forest Service, Edholm says.
Lookout Pass also plans to conduct environmental studies for a new master plan that would include two new chairlifts and 14 additional ski runs on Eagle Peak, which is the adjacent peak west of the current ski terrain.
Lookout Pass also is the concessionaire for the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha mountain bicycle trail that winds through 10 tunnels and more than seven high trestles on a portion of the former Milwaukee Road railroad line.
Edholm says 37,502 riders used the trail last summer, setting a record for the fifth consecutive year.
"If the weather cooperates, we expect continued growth," he says of the trail use.